In 1995, “Outbreak” represented a very different type of Hollywood thriller. Instead of pitting its heroes against criminals, terrorists or other generic baddies, the movie’s antagonist was a deadly virus. Twenty-five years later, with the globe on lockdown due to the coronavirus and the death count from the disease rising, “Outbreak” looks remarkably prescient. But screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool take little comfort in correctly predicting the devastating toll that a pandemic can take on society. Instead, they’re incensed by the bureaucratic missteps of the Trump White House and other local governments, errors that have resulted in the U.S. leading the world in COVID-19 infections and deaths.
“I never anticipated the incompetence of this administration,” says Dworet, a medical doctor who later became a screenwriter. “They knew this was coming, basically ignored it, and did little planning. They didn’t order any protective gear until mid-March.”
“Laurie and I are contrasting personalities,” says Pool. “He is anxious and worried, and he sees the dark side of things. I’m very positive and always think everything will somehow work out. Well, Laurie was right and I was wrong. When we wrote ‘Outbreak,’ I thought we’d weather a pandemic much better than we have.”
Beyond a perhaps misguided belief in the core competence of our leaders, the film’s depiction of a public health crisis differs from the current catastrophe in other important respects. “Outbreak” follows a team of U.S. Army medical researchers as they struggle to contain a fictitious disease, dubbed the Motaba virus, that’s quickly spreading in a California town. In the film, they’re successful in halting it in its tracks. In the case of the coronavirus, the world is far past the point of containment. And the Motaba virus is much deadlier than the coronavirus; it is shown to manifest quickly, sickening its hosts within hours of exposure. Part of the problem with the coronavirus is that people can carry the disease for days, even weeks, without exhibiting any signs, enabling them to unwittingly spread it to others.
“The slow-fuse nature of coronavirus is what makes it so dangerous,” says Dworet.
While writing “Outbreak,” Pool and Dworet did extensive research, grilling infectious-disease experts at the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies. That legwork helped ensure that “Outbreak” got certain details right. In the film, the disease is disseminated by a lab assistant who steals a capuchin monkey that is host to the virus to sell on the black market. While the origins of the coronavirus are still a matter of debate, it appears to have leaped from bats to humans. Experts warn that as we encroach further into the natural world, humankind will continue to be subject to new pandemics.
“Our relentless drive for expansion is going to keep unleashing these viruses,” says Dworet. “This is just one of many.”
The film also successfully dramatizes the psychological strain that a plague can have on the people living through it.
“What we got right was the kind of chaos and fear that accompanies a virus’ spread,” says Pool.
“Outbreak” may be unexpectedly timely, but it represents the kind of movie that studios don’t make these days. The R-rated thriller, released by Warner Bros. and produced for $50 million, was geared to adults and interested in grappling with some big ideas while delivering compelling action sequences. (The film grossed nearly $190 million worldwide). Even before the pandemic shuttered theaters last month, studios had abandoned those kind of brainy, modestly budgeted offerings in favor of comic book adaptations designed for teenagers.
“The movie business was dysfunctional before the virus hit,” says Pool. “Studios recognize that they can make $2.5 billion on ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ a single movie. When ‘Outbreak’ was being made, you’d need to make 50 movies to have that result. After this pandemic, studios will be even more wary about making movies that are from different genres and budgets.”
Of course, that depends on Hollywood being able to go back to work. Both writers think it will be some time before production can ramp up again, and also believe that the theatrical business won’t return to normal anytime soon. They don’t think a functioning economy will be possible until testing is widely available and doctors can assess whether or not people have antibodies that would prevent them from reinfection.
“You’re going to need to be issued a passport to go back to work,” says Dworet. “Until there’s a vaccine, you’re not going to have loads of people participating in a functioning economy. You won’t have any new productions for a year, never mind having people go sit in a movie theater. At least you won’t unless you want to send a whole new wave of people back into the ICU.”